Saturday, March 31, 2012

NOTES ON NORTHROP FRYE AND THE NUM-THEORY

Before proceeding to the fourth of the GRAVITY’S CROSSBOW essays, I’ll detail some of the possible intersections between my NUM theory and Northrop Frye’s reformulation of the Aristotelian “power of action” in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.  I’ll note at the start that within different sections of the ANATOMY Frye explores two overlapping but not identical sets of terms for literary functions—“modes” and “mythoi.”  Both terminological sets are organized in terms with a grand quaternary scheme based upon the four seasons, one which may have taken inspiration from a similar scheme in Theodor Gaster’s THESPIS.  In most of my ARCHIVE essays I’ve utilized the term “mythoi” and avoided the complication of Frye’s writings on “modes.” However, Frye’s most penetrating insights on the “power of action”—which henceforth I’ll simply call *dynamis*— appear at the opening of the chapter “Theory of Modes.”  I provide this detail not because I want to discuss Frye’s modes any more than I have, but simply to be specific as to the context of Frye’s remarks on *dynamis*.  For simplicity’s sake I’ll continue to skip the matter of Fryean modes and will continue directly relating his concepts of *dynamis* to the narrarive *mythoi* he introduces in “Theory of Myths;” the same mythoi I’ve tweaked for my uses: adventure (which Frye calls “romance’) comedy, irony, and drama (which Frye calls “tragedy.”)

Whereas Aristotle’s division of *dynamis* has the fixed arrangement of an aristocratic pecking-order—noble / less noble / ignoble—Frye’s reformulation suggests a more Spenglerian vision of *dynamis*, in which human power of action becomes less and less efficacious as each mythos in its turn becomes less “romantic” and more “realistic.”  In addition, where Aristotle only tangentially mentions the influence of religious myth upon art and literature, Frye begins his literary system by designating religious myth as expressing the height of *dynamis*, even though myth proper is “outside the normal literary categories.” This is because myth pre-eminently concerns the stories of “divine beings” rather than men, so that myth-protagonists are “superior in kind to both other men and to the environment of other men.”

Romance/adventure takes the next rating in terms of dynamic potential, in that it concerns the type of protagonist who is “superior in degree to other men and to his environment.”  Following this category, the next three mythoi—tragedy/drama, comedy, and irony—focus upon protagonists whose personal *dynamis* becomes more and more compromised by the intrusions of reality.  In all these characterizations of *dynamis*, Frye is regarding each level of power purely in terms of its physical manifestation within a given narrative

I’ve studied Frye for many years, I didn’t have Frye’s “romantic-to-realistic” transitions of *dynamis* consciously in mind when I formulated the NUM theory, though there is a loose correlation.  Frye’s formulation proceeds from “extremely marvelous” (myth) to “somewhat marvelous” (romance) to “entirely realistic” (the three increasingly realistic mythoi: drama, comedy and irony).  In contrast, I’ve asserted three levels of phenomenality:

“the marvelous”— cognitive and affective aspects of phenomena do exceed causality
“the uncanny”—causality cognitively preserved, but affectivity exceeds causality
“the naturalistic”—cognitive and affective aspects are both contained by causality

It should be noted that Frye’s “somewhat marvelous” level includes all sorts of things that I deem fully marvelous, even lacking the presence of divine protagonists: “enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power.” As a side-note, it’s interesting that, given Todorov’s negative mention of Frye in THE FANTASTIC, it’s possible Todorov’s uses of the term “marvelous” may have been influenced by Frye, even as Todorov’s use of “the uncanny” almost certainly derives from Freud.  Of course, as noted here, Todorov defines the marvelous in terms of “the real,” whereas Frye is careful to specify, with a Jungian pluralism, that all the above-listed marvels “violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established.” 

  I’m aware of nothing in Frye’s theory that parallels any concept of “the uncanny,” be it Freud’s, Todorov’s, or my own.  However, it’s interesting that the “somewhat marvelous” (my words) characterization of the romance can be interpreted as an interstitial category between the completely marvelous and the completely naturalistic/realistic.

The most problematic aspect of Frye’s *dynamis* schema is that in its attempt to cohere with Aristotle’s pattern, it implies that “the marvelous” is located purely within the mythoi of myth and romance.  I’m sure that, even staying within the confines of the canonical “high” literature with which Frye concerns himself, the scholar was quite cognizant that there exist many literary works which have marvelous content but which are not adventure-romances as Frye himself defines that mythos.  Apuleis’ novel THE GOLDEN ASS concerns a man magically changed into an ass, who then listens in on the secret conversations of human beings, while Shakespeare’s TEMPEST concerns a genuine practitioner of magic—but neither work is centered upon what Frye terms the *agon,* the conflict between representatives of good and evil.  If one agrees with me that these two works belong to other mythoi—my choices would be “comedy” for one and “drama” for the other—then it does not make logical sense to say, or even to imply, that aspects of marvelous phenomeanlity appear only in the adventure-romance category.

Similarly, not all heroes of archaic romance exist in marvelous worlds.  The 12th-century Spanish poem EL CID concerns a hero who is mighty but never more than mortal, and all of his opponents are purely mortal as well.  Thus it’s obvious that the mythos I call “adventure” is not defined by its metaphenomenal content.  It’s axiomatic, then, that all four mythoi can be include works that align with any of the three phenomenalities.  Thus Frye’s implied association of his four mythoi with particular phenomenalities—“marvelous” with romance, “naturalistic” with drama, comedy, and irony—proves insufficient.

However, this imperfect schema applies only to reading the *dynamis* attributed to each mythos in purely physical terms; as to how much temporal power each mythoi’s ideal protagonist may possess.  The real strength of Frye’s schema is to be found not in the implied “narrative values”— how each *dynamis* manifests in physical terms—but in terms of one “significant value” that more neatly characterizes each mythos, irrespective of whether its phenomenality is marvelous, uncanny, or naturalistic—a value on which I’ll expatiate further in GRAVITY’S CROSSBOW 4.
           


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